A new report -The Politics of Protein - released today (Thursday, April 7), reveals that fake meat is not as sustainable as its advocates claim, according to the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food).

Technologies such as cultured and fake meat, plant-based substitutes and precision livestock and fish farming are on the rise, according to IPES-Food, and promise reduced damage to the climate.

The report by IPES-Food, however, found:

"Indeed, they may cause more harm than good - resulting in hyper-processed food, dependency on fossil-fuel energy and loss of livelihoods for livestock farmers in the global south."

The expert panel said that evidence of climate benefits are limited and speculative as they appear to be due to relentless marketing and misleading claims about a global protein shortage, while ignoring key aspects of sustainability such as biodiversity and livelihoods.

Alternative proteins

So-called "alternative proteins" have attracted support from US, Chinese and European governments, and refer to novel plant-based substitutes, lab-grown meat/fish/dairy products, insect-based protein foods and other novel manufactured high-protein foods, according to IPES-Food.

Image source: IPES-Food

While alternative-meat sales currently represent 1% of the world's market for meat, this could grow to 10% by 2030, the report said, as the market for meat substitutes is experiencing rapid growth, projected to reach $28 billion by 2025.

Plant-based substitutes are based on replacing animal-derived foods with plant-based ingredients while simulating taste, sight, smell, feel and chemical characteristics of traditional meat products.

However, these substitutes are clearly distinct in their design and composition from traditional plant-based preparations which are sometimes used as meat replacements (e.g. tofu, tempeh, seitan) and whole foods such as jackfruit, mushrooms and beans.

Market and investment

Fake meat risks entrenching domination of food systems by giant agri-business firms, IPES-Food said, as alternative proteins are attracting investments from big meat corporations.

The market received significant investment and acquisitions from the world's biggest meat-processing companies including JBS, Cargill and Tyson.

Therefore, IPES-Food explained, the market is now characterised by companies combining both industrial meat production and alternatives - creating protein monopolies.

Image source: IPES-Food

Member of IPES-Food and lead author, Philip Howard, said:

"In many cases, switching to fake meat will make the problems with our industrial food system worse - fossil-fuel dependence, industrial monocultures, pollution, poor work conditions, unhealthy diets and control by massive corporations."

He added that fake meat is increasingly in the hands of the same giant meat corporations that are linked to the destruction of rainforests.

Image source: IPES-Food

"What’s really needed is to transform our whole food systems, not the product - and that means breaking up the monopolies, promoting diversity in food producers and what we eat, and localising where our food comes from," lead author Howard said.

While alternative proteins are increasingly being marketed in countries in the global south, co-chair of IPES-Food, Olivier De Schutter, said meat and fish are a sustainable source of nutrients and livelihoods for people in the global south.

The expert panel calls for greater focus on entire food systems and policies, considering broad sustainability metrics with regional contexts, measuring not just greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).